I’m in New York. Here’s what I see.
Brooklyn Museum is hosting a retrospective of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei that has left me numb for days. For two decades, Ai Weiwei’s multidisciplinary art has been a critical, subversive voice in Chinese culture. Brooklyn is showing forty of his works including photography, sculpture, film, installation, and carpentry, the first of these easy to miss, even though you’ll walk by it as you enter the museum. These pieces called “S.A.C.R.E.D” show the narrow world of his detainment when in 2011 he was held by Chinese authorities for criticizing the government’s stance on democracy and human rights. Ai was held for 81 days and was struck on the head by police so forcefully that it caused a brain hemorrhage. You can see the x-ray at Ai Weiwei: According to What? through August 10.
His “Citizen’s Investigation” catalogues nearly 5,000 school children who were killed in the 2008 earthquake. Unwilling to answer questions about the schools which so easily collapsed, the government procrastinated in releasing the names of the dead, sweeping them under the rug. Their lives were not only rubbed out, but their names nearly forgotten. Ai Weiwei lists their names, addresses, and schools along a massive wall, and a recording of volunteers speaking the names continuously plays with quiet insistence. Ai sifted through the schools’ wreckage with his team, many of whom were detained in the process, collecting the rebar steel rods that did not manage to protect the children inside. They straightened them, one at a time, and laid them out in varying heights like a blanket. They form a structure that is 20 feet wide and 58 feet long. Ai calls this piece “Straight.”
There’s so much more to see in this exhibition, and even more to explore online — Ai Weiwei’s online activism is a rabbit hold worthy of exploration. Tony Youngblood took these fantastic photos of the exhibit.